Surface Warfare Magazine
Sharing stories and news from Sailors across the U.S. Navy’s Surface Forces
The Truth about Leadership

When I was invited to write a review of a leadership book for this issue of Surface Warfare magazine, my mind raced through favorite titles that have inspired me, encouraged me, and challenged me over the years. Lurid tales of World War II sea combat highlight the incredible stakes of our vocation, the inspiring biographies of military leaders and statesmen teach us the impact an individual can have on the arc of history, and the harrowing suffering endured bravely by heroic prisoners in war’s most desperate circumstances reminds us that the foundation of all courage is moral courage.

It is important to raise our eyes from the immediate challenges of our demanding jobs and shift our gaze to the proverbial horizon from time to time. It is important to be inspired—and sometimes warned—by these great lessons of history. If instead of the profession of arms, we were devoted to football, these books would be the highlight reels of touchdown catches, two point conversions, and game-saving tackles.

Equally important, though, is to condition ourselves and our ships for our own great tests. Establishing habits of excellence will ultimately be the decisive preparation for what lies ahead. Beyond the highlight reels, we need some books in our professional library with ideas for how to run two-a-day summer practices and perfect our blocking and tackling.

The Truth About Leadership by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (the pair who developed the Leadership Practices Inventory online 360-degree assessment tool used by the Navy) is a good book to consider how you can establish and practice your own habits of excellence in leadership.

Kouzes and Posner have distilled thirty years of their acclaimed research into ten “truths” that aim to transcend whatever is being celebrated in the latest trends of the leadership guru business—to get beyond the context of leadership and understand the unchanging content of leadership.

The book is available on the Overdrive app under the Navy General Library Program. I listened to it in four days of morning gate traffic waiting in line to get onto Naval Base San Diego. There is nothing earth shattering in the conclusions the book presents but that, after all, is the point. The Truth About Leadership will likely resonate with your own hard-earned leadership wisdom that you are collecting in your professional tool kit. It will clarify some of your own experience and amplify your empirical understanding of what it takes to successfully lead. Aggregating their research and the millions of data points collected in leadership surveys and workshops over the last three decades, Kouzes and Posner devote a chapter to each of these ten concepts:


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Truth #1 You Make a Difference. It is not a question of whether you will make a difference, but rather a question of what difference you will make. Before you lead you must believe that you can have a positive impact on others. When you realize you make the difference, you position yourself to lead.

Truth #2 Credibility Is the Foundation of Leadership. If people don’t believe you, they simply will not follow you. You must do what you say you are going to do. You must be so clear about your beliefs that you can live them every day.

Truth #3 Values Drive Commitment. You need to know what you believe in. Only then can you—and your subordinates—fully commit to an organization that believes in the same values.

Truth #4 Focusing on the Future Sets Leaders Apart. You have to be forward looking. That is the quality that most clearly differentiates leaders from individual contributors. You must spend time reflecting on the future, developing a sense of profound purpose and articulating a meaningful mission. Big dreams resonate with others. They inspire and energize teams.

Truth #5 You Can’t Do It Alone. Leadership is a team sport. You need to engage others in the cause. Leaders enable others to be even better than they already are.

Truth #6 Trust Rules. Effectively engaging others requires trust. To build mutual trust you must trust others first.

Truth #7 Challenge Is the Crucible of Greatness. Great achievements don’t happen when you keep things the same. Change invariably involves challenge, and challenge tests you. It introduces you to yourself. It brings you face-to-face with your level of commitment, your grittiness, and your values. Challenge reveals you.

Truth #8 You Either Lead by Example or You Don’t Lead at All. You have to go first as a leader. That’s what it takes to get others to follow your lead.

Truth #9 The Best Leaders Are the Best Learners. Learning is the master skill of leadership. Leaders are constant improvement fanatics.

Truth #10 Leadership Is an Affair of the Heart. Leaders love what they’re doing and those they lead. Leaders make others feel great themselves and are gracious in showing appreciation.

These truths motivate the behaviors that form good and sustainable leadership. These truths are the foundation to build habits of excellence in leadership that you can rely on when the big tests confront you dramatically, or the small tests conspire to test you in the routine.

If you devote the time to read—or listen to—The Truth About Leadership, I predict you will find places in the book where your own experience in Surface Warfare will allow you to articulate even more effective and more relevant examples. You already have, or will soon have, more inspiring touchstones of personal experience. The book is a great conversation starter, though, to make you reconsider your approach to leadership as a deliberate choice. There is a wealth of data and study behind these distilled truths, and it is instructive to hear from Kouzes and Posner as well as the wide array of cross-discipline leadership experiences that underpins their work.

Archilochus’ axiom, “We do not rise to the level of our expectation, we fall to the level of our training,” can be applied to leadership literature. We need to keep studying and being inspired by the professional reading list titles that help shape and elevate our expectations of ourselves. We also need to tend to our training, though. The Truth About Leadership is time well spent on leadership training. Surface Warfare Magazine

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